The Kumquat Challenge

Ara  Taylor, project manager for  The Kumquat Challenge, emceed the KC celebration and announced the  2019 winners on April29th. In the Student Category: Kristen Dietz, 1st place; Rem Naughton, 2nd; Mariia Neguliaeva, 3rd. Community Category: Sally Sheedy, 1st; Alana Erickson, 2nd; J.S. Nahani, 3rd.

Every spring during National Poetry Month, the Whatcom Community College Library, sponsors a poem writing contest. Every year I’m both confounded and energized by the pile of disparate words—ten of them—that land in my inbox and charge me to make a poem.  This year the words were

ardent, hour, intent, open, yearn,
mingle, keen, just, quarter, shimmer

For a moment, I considered writing about Casanova—more than a womanizer, he was a Roman Catholic cardinal, a spy, a diplomat, a violinist, a magician, and…a librarian —a bullet point in my biography as well. From 1785 until his death in 1798 he worked as a private librarian for a count in Bohemia.

What came to mind, however, was doggerel about a promiscuous rake—ardent and keen of intent—mingling hands with a yearning maiden beneath a quarter-sized, shimmering moon just as the midnight hour opened. So:

I turned to the method I’ve used for several years, looking up each word in the Oxford English Dictionary which contains alternative meanings, obscure usages and curious quotations which stimulate my imagination. The OED is the 20-volume dictionary that Ammon Shea wrote about in Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 pages, a book I recommend.

I’m pleased that I don’t have to drag thick, individual volumes of the OED off library shelves; my wife gave me an online subscription Christmas three years ago which has become a fixture in our budget.

I enjoying finding quotes…even if I don’t use them like the dialogue Charles Browne created in his 1862 publication Artemus Ward, His Story: “‘Hast thou not yearned for me?’ she yelled…‘Not a yearn!’ I bellered.”

Yearn as coagulation of milk, “to form curds, typically after the introduction of rennet or ‘yearning’” won’t be a usage for me, nor will this definition of quarter: “any one of four parts of a body or carcass in which a human body may be divided, as was commonly done to a traitor after execution.”

Mingle means mixing things together, like voices or people (i.e. the dating site “Christian Mingle”). Merriam-Webster adds “usually without fundamental loss of identity.” (I like that!) Then there’s Shakespeare’s creative conveyance in Antony and Cleopatra: “Trumpetters…make mingle with our ratling Tambourines.” I wonder what he’d do with the modern-day parlance of real estate people who use mingle as a noun meaning “an unmarried person who shares a residence with another of roughly the same age.”

As for shimmer, I hit pay dirt (can’t resist the OED’s definition of the mining term “pay dirt,”  first used in 1853,“ground ore in sufficient quantity to be profitably extracted” and the figurative application “to achieve profit or success”) when the OED prompted me to think of shimmer not just as a gleaming, flickering light, but as “A workman who inserts shims in cabinet work.”

A line came to me: “She was a shimmer.” Like a sculptor teasing art from rock, I began to chisel out the finished poem that satisfied the technical requirements for The Kumquat Challenge, a poem that I called

Gratitude

I.
Two daughters remove fixtures, paint walls,
stage the house into magazine-ready saleability,
Kondo-readying us for our new condo.
Marie would be pleased with their downsizing
and the parsing of items into categories:
KEEP, SELL, DONATE, DUMP.

One son, ladder-borne, sanitizes the attic,
his gloved hands mingle with rodent deposits
and the webbed netting of spiders.
Wise to his mother’s yearning,
he, an ardent eliminator of the unnecessary,
notes the slight nod of my head, heaves
unused items destined for disposal into
his pick-up before I can change my mind.

He Boraxes rug stains into invisibility,
pilots a rug cleaner over yards of carpet,
replaces switch plates, installs a bathroom heater,
carries sofas, beds, thirty cartons of books,
erects and steadies eight bookcases,
positions furniture, mounts TVs, builds shelves,
slices remaining cardboard boxes into quarters.

Another son, rabbit-quick, hauls, unloads, organizes.
Returns to his out-of-town home. Repeats.
Posts photographs to social media platforms.
Predicts no sales. Correctly.

II.
We settle in, make changes.
Our daughter-in-law shifts
an IKEA desktop onto table legs
which double as file cabinets.

Loaded, they are heavy; they will not open,
but she is solution-oriented, keen of eye,
a workwoman, intent on success.
She slides, just so, a slim triangle of
found wood between the floor and the drawer.
She is a shimmer.

III.
I am a-shimmer too, caught smiling
in a glow of gratitude for adult children
who make possible the hour of our
departure from one place, one life
to another place and another life.

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